By Professor Dr. Spyridon Kontoyiannes,
Professor of Theology at the University of Athens
As the tradition of our Church teaches, the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos took place at the house of John the Evangelist, where the All Holy Virgin stayed, together with his brother James and their mother Salome who was related to the Theotokos, according to the known consignment of Christ from the Cross (John 19:26-27). The Theotokos was informed about her imminent falling asleep by an angel three days before the event, and so she was able to prepare herself and to give her two garments to two widowed neighbors.
When the All-holy Virgin fell asleep and her eyes were closed, the Apostles, who had been miraculously gathered together in Jerusalem from the “ends of the earth,” raised her bier and carried it to the garden of her family in Gethsemane, where her parents, Joachim and Anna, had been buried, and buried it there. During the transportation of the bier, fanatical Jews tried to overturn it, but they were miraculously blinded. Only one of them was able to touch the bier, but an invisible sword cut his two hands.
Many of the faithful, however, on many occasions have raised the question: how old was our All-holy Lady when she fell asleep? To find the age of the Theotokos at the time of her falling asleep we need to take the events of her life one by one, as they are delivered by the New Testament and the tradition of our Church.
1. As regards the date of the birth of the Theotokos, the Menaia of the Church record according to the tradition the 8th of September of the year 16 BC.
2. Her betrothal by Zachariah her relative (Luke 1:36) to Joseph who was also her relative (Luke 1:27 3:23ff), occurred when the All-holy Virgin was 14 years old.
3. Her Annunciation that she would give birth to the Son and Word of God by the Archangel Gabriel occurred in the year 1 BC, i.e. when the All-holy Virgin had completed her 15th year.
4. Therefore, when she gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ she was 16 years old.
5. At the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, in May of the year AD 33, the All-holy Virgin had completed her 48th year and was present together with the Apostles at the Upper Room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14, 2:1ff).
All the above-mentioned pieces of information concerning the life of the All-holy Theotokos are supplied by Luke the Evangelist in his Gospel and in his book the Acts of the Apostles, in combination with the great and sacred events of the Church, because the All-holy Virgin was the most venerable person in the early Church as the Mother of our Savior and God.
So, when in the year AD 48/49, another great and sacred event took place in the Church, the Apostolic Synod, Luke does not say whether our All-holy Lady was present. He does so, not out of contempt or irreverence towards her holy person but simply because by his silence he indicates that she had fallen asleep a little earlier than the summoning of the Apostolic Synod in AD 47 or 48/49. It would have been unthinkable and irrational if the first historian of the Church willfully ignored the person who gave birth to the Redeemer of the world; the person to whom human beings for over two thousand years “have been turning, after God” and regard her as their “indissoluble fortress and protection.” The silence of Luke the Evangelist in this case means nothing else than that our All-holy Lady had fallen asleep. She fell asleep and was transported to heaven as the Mother of our God and our Mother to Life at the age of 62/63.
The only Apostle who was absent from the funeral of the Theotokos was Thomas. However, when he arrived three days later and went to grave of the Theotokos, he did not find her body there but only her sepulcher clothes. At the grave of the Theotokos a magnificent temple was erected which is attributed to St. Helen. After the destruction of this temple the Byzantine emperors Marcian (450-457) and Pulcheria erected the temple which still exists today.
It was at this temple in Gethsemane that Saint John Damascene delivered his celebrated Orations on the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos. It is with him that we too sing today: “Let us praise her today with sacred songs… Let us honor her with an all-night vigil… Let us thank her with purity of soul and body… Let us cry with Gabriel, the first leader of the angels… Rejoice, you through whom death is being pushed aside and life has been brought in” (Oration II on the Dormition of the Theotokos, 16).